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Death by design: Systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. and Australia

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(Image by Dan Jensen)

Black deaths in Australia and the United States follow a similar historical pattern of racist institutionalism and disregard for the sanctity of human life, writes Dr Rashad Seedeen.

BARKINDJI MAN Anzac Sullivan, 37, died on March 18, allegedly while running away from police after they visited his home to serve an outstanding warrant.

Less than a month later, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old from a small city just north of Minneapolis, was shot dead by police attempting to arrest him for an outstanding warrant.

These deaths, along with many others, have ignited protests and open resentment at a racist system that is killing Black people in record numbers.

In Australia and the United States, the historical treatment of Black people has been characterised by its cruelty and disregard for human life.

During the years of colonialism, Indigenous populations, which were violently and forcefully disenfranchised from their land, were regular victims of heinous massacres. In the 1830s, frontier violence was so prevalent that the murder of Indigenous locals became commonplace.

In late 1837, Major James Nunn, commandant of the New South Wales Mounted Police, led a violent expedition against local Gamilaroi people as retaliation for the deaths of stockmen. His pursuit resulted in the brutal murders of Aboriginal men, women and children in what became known as the Waterloo Massacre, 26 January 1838.

Most accounts have the death toll from the Waterloo Massacre at 50 but Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld noted in his reports that Nunn and his men could have killed up to 300 people.

Massacres took place across Australia during the violent occupation of Indigenous land with the death toll from the Frontier Wars estimated at between 20,000 to 60,000 Indigenous deaths compared to 2,000 to 5,000 deaths of the colonisers.      

In the United States, from about the beginning of the 18th Century, especially in the South, the earliest forms of volunteer policing were "slave patrols", whose primary function was to crush slave revolts and to track runaway slaves — essentially used as an institution to violently maintain the slave system.

After the Civil War and in the Reconstruction Era, local sheriffs in the South continued this tradition, intervening in Black lives in order to segregate, violently terrorise and disenfranchise freed slaves.

In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was first formed, carrying out terrorist attacks against Blacks in the South, committing acts of murder, burning down schoolhouses, homes and churches with near impunity.

The embedding of racist institutionalism resulted in a culture where Blacks, in both the U.S. and Australia, were completely marginalised and treated as threats to the continued dominance of whites.

By Federation in 1901, Australia's Indigenous population were wholly disenfranchised by no longer being recognised as British subjects. The general consensus was that Aboriginal people were dying out and that the new Federal government should simply "smooth the pillow" of a dying race.

At the time, Alfred Deakin said:

Australia will be a white continent with not a black or even dark skin amongst its inhabitants. The Aboriginal race has died out in the south and is dying fast in the north and west

For Deakin and his contemporaries, the new nation of Australia was built with the explicit exclusion of the Indigenous population and all other non-white people.

The Constitution of the United States 1788 had a similar legal exclusion for slaves who were considered 'three-fifths of a free individual' and original voting rights were only conferred upon white landowning men.

From the birth of these nations to the present day, Indigenous Australians and Black Americans were deemed – in society and the law – as second-class citizens, not worthy of equal rights. When we examine history from post-World War II we can see that systemic forms of racism have continued and that the police have exhibited a clear willingness to repress local Black populations.

Following Australia's Federation, Protection Boards were established that carried out a systemic form of genocide where mixed-race Aboriginal children were taken from their families with the explicit design of erasing all Indigenous culture from their identity.

Such forceful family break-ups were carried out by the police with little regard for the social consequences.

To this day, the deep trauma from successive Stolen Generations has been felt in the Indigenous community and entrenched a deep distrust for the political and legal institutions of this country.

The U.S. civil rights movement directly confronted the injustice of segregation laws through non-violent protests in the South. Their brave actions were met with batons, police dogs, hoses and bullets from police, and enraged many whites.

In 1960s Sydney, police violence had reached such concerning levels that Aboriginal activists formed Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) that was designed to observe and collect evidence of police brutality, predominantly in the Redfern area.

When we move to the present, it is quite evident that racial injustice permeates throughout the legal institutions in the U.S. and Australia.

Let’s look at some hard facts.

Black Americans were killed by the police 2.6 times the rate of their white counterparts in the last five years. Among unarmed victims, Black Americans were killed at three times the rate of whites.

Breonna Taylor was slain by police while she slept in her own bed. Elijah McClain was murdered while walking home with some iced tea. Botham Jean was killed in his own apartment while eating ice cream and watching television.

George Floyd was lynched on a Minneapolis street by a police officer who mercilessly knelt on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes as Floyd slowly suffocated to death.

Death by homicide is the sixth leading cause of death for Black Americans.

According to Pew Research, in 2017, Blacks made up 12% of the U.S. adult population but represent 33% in prisons, compared to whites who represent 64% of the population but 30% in prisons.

Peaceful Black Lives Matter protests have been met by police in riot gear who were quick to escalate a confrontation with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets

Conversely, anti-lockdown protests and Capital Riot attended by fully armed Trump supporters were tolerated by police. In the case of the Capital Riot, police actually opened the gates to allow rioters in and a number of off-duty police were participants.   

In Australia, Aboriginal people are gaoled younger and more frequently — 13 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.

In custody, Indigenous people died at six times the rate of non-Indigenous people. And in the last 30 years, 474 Indigenous deaths have occurred while in custody.   

Indigenous Australians represent around 3% of the population yet make up 28% of Australia’s prison populations. And for youth detention, Indigenous people represent 53%.   

Coroners’ reports indicate that for Indigenous deaths in custody, police, prisons and hospital staff are twice as likely to have not followed their own procedures in their treatment of Indigenous people. This is especially the case for Indigenous women. 

A telling example of this is the treatment of Tanya Day, an Aboriginal woman who was arrested by Castlemaine police for public drunkenness whilst on a V/Line train in late 2017. Day died while in custody after falling and sustaining a head injury — she was not attended to for three hours.

On that same day, a white woman was also picked up by Castlemaine police for public drunkenness but was simply returned to her family.

The disregard for Indigenous life can be further evidenced by an incident that took place in early 2008, when an Indigenous Elder was "cooked to death" in a prison van, on a four-hour drive in 47 degree Celsius heat, from Laverton to Kalgoorlie. The man was only given a 600 ml bottle of water in a van with no air conditioning.

If people are shocked at the current anger and resentment directed at the police and governments in Australia and the U.S., please remember it’s been hundreds of years in the making.

The simple truth is that all of these deaths were preventable — the victims just needed to be white.

Dr Rashad Seedeen holds a PhD in international relations and works as a high school teacher. You can follow Rashad on Twitter @rash_seedeen.

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